One for the Books: Six of the World’s Most Beautiful Libraries
15th January 2020
Argentinian Poet, Jorge Luis Borges imagined Paradise as a “kind of library.” From allegory-adorned ceilings in Austria to Renaissance-style reading rooms in the North of France, these six libraries breathe new life into the writer’s immortal words.
1. Château de Chantilly, France
Borne upon the passionate love affair between a Parisian prince and his collection of antique books, the Château de Chantilly’s library houses 60,000 volumes of Europe’s most-precious literature. From Medieval manuscripts to troves of 16th-century treatises, the Renaissance-style reading rooms at Chantilly are a testament to Henri d’Orléans’ literary passions. Inheriting his family’s chateau in 1830, Henri (otherwise known as the Duke of Amale) would begin to compile his world-renowned collection in 1848, acquiring rare editions from European auctions and antiquarian booksellers.
Assisted by Antonio Panizzi, the director of the British Library and Léopold Delisle, the General Administrator of the National Library of France; the Duke obtained 1,500 manuscripts and 17,500 printed documents dedicated to the subject of universal knowledge. Infatuated by his findings, Henri famously wrote to a friend, “I think I’m suffering from bibliomania,” forever cementing his legacy as one of the world’s most dedicated (albeit obsessive) collectors.
2. The National Library of Finland, Finland
An ornate temple dedicated to science, Finland’s foremost research library nods to ancient Rome with Corinthian columns, stucco marble and Classical motifs. Regarded as one of the finest entities in Finnish architecture, the symmetrical placement and layout of the library halls mimics that of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s bathhouses.
Envisioned by C. L. Engel, the German architect was approached by the Russian Emperor, Nicholas I in 1836. Commissioned to create three design proposals for the national library, the Emperor opted for the most monumental (and no doubt most expensive) of the three. Neighbouring the Helsinki Cathedral, the library stands today as an integral part of Finland’s Senate Square, emphasising the state’s former ties with the Russian Empire.
3. Admont Abbey Monastery Library, Austria
“Like the mind, light should fill the room” – this is the premise upon which the Admont Abbey Library was built. Regularly referred to as the ‘Eighth wonder of the world”; white-washed bookcases and gold-leaf moulding are illuminated by the state hall’s 48 windows. Inspired by the Imperial Court Library in Vienna, Josef Hueber’s Enlightenment ideals impose upon this Baroque-style beauty. Painted by Austrian artist Bartolomeo Altomonte, the seven ceiling frescoes depict the various phases of human understanding; from thought to speech, sciences to art.
Reputed as the largest monastery library hall in the world, this Pinterest-worthy space boasts a collection of over 70,000 volumes, with cupolas housing various editions of the Bible, works of the Church Fathers and post-16th century theological literature.
4. Trinity College Old Library, Ireland
Lined with marble busts of the finest philosophers and writers of the western world, this 18th-century archive brims with relics of the past. Synonymous with Irish identity, the Old Library at Trinity College houses over 200,000 volumes and artefacts; from a rare copy of the 1916 proclamation of the Irish Republic to the 15th-century harp upon which Ireland’s emblem is modelled.
Under the enduring gaze of Aristotle, Sir Isaac Newton and Jonathon Swift, the library’s main chamber (otherwise known as the Long Room) boasts a distinct barrel-vaulted ceiling and upper gallery bookcases filled with rich holdings. Beneath the upper floor, bands of gold lettering commemorate the library’s greatest benefactors; from King Charles II to the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher.
5. Cuypers Research Library, Amsterdam
Galleries interlinked by a spiral staircase bask in the glow of Gothic-style windows at Cuypers Library. Both the oldest and largest art history library in The Netherlands, this romantic reading room has been expanding its compendium of books since 1885. Stocked with manuscripts, journals and catalogues from art exhibitions long past, bibliophiles and art history buffs alike can converge amongst Amsterdam’s 19th-century stacks.
6. Baroque Library, Prague
Dumbledore’s office rubs shoulders with the Sistine Chapel in Prague’s Baroque Library, as grand halls adorned with forged railings, mahogany bookcases and astronomical globes dwell beneath allegorical frescoes. Painted by German-born artist, Jan Hiebl, portraits of Jesuit saints and other religious symbols draw eyes to the ceiling, while handcrafted clocks designed by mathematician, Jan Klein, bring them back down to earth.
The beating heart of Klementinum’s Jesuit University, books with white-painted spines and red flecks are marked out as the library’s longest-standing editions, having resided on its shelves since the early 1700s. Home to some of Europe’s oldest collections, the Baroque is best known for the 11th century Vyšehrad Codex – a Romanesque Gospel book supposedly gifted to the first king of Bohemia in 1085.